Saturday marked the 35th anniversary of Ray Bourque’s admission into the Boston Bruins family. On August 9, 1979, Boston traded up to obtain the eighth overall draft pick, which landed the team an eventual all-around marvel.
The marvel still holds some residual sway. The current faces of the franchise bring a few Bourque-like qualities and have impelled higher-ups to complement them with a championship-caliber roster.
In turn, the NHL’s New England chapter is belatedly recompensing for the one blemish it brooked over the final one-fifth of the 20th century. It is at a point where it strives to sustain more stability than it had at this time 35 years ago.
At the time of the 1979 draft, the Bruins were at best kicking with agitation below the surface. Despite two Stanley Cup championships and three more finals appearances in the dying calendar decade, they needed to replenish their identity.
They were three years removed from losing Bobby Orr to Chicago. They were three months removed from an infamous fall-from-ahead falter in Montreal (their third straight playoff loss to the Habs) and a subsequent coaching change.
For the better part of the next two decades, Bourque was the catalyst for a team that stayed competitive but never cemented heavyweight status. He was hardly to blame when the Bruins missed the 1997 playoffs, but his eventual departure and subpar replacements precipitated a sluggish start to this century.
Since the arrival of club president and former Bourque teammate Cam Neely, Boston has built back up to reach the NHL’s canopy. The Bruins have won a Cup, made a convincing run to another Cup Final and acknowledged the sting of underachievement the rest of the time.
Granted, they have done so without a single skater whose legend will ever be as big as Bourque’s. But they have boasted a balanced brigade featuring pilots with similar intangibles and a respectable supporting cast.
For that reason, the Bruins’ decision to relinquish Ron Grahame has had a hand in the present team’s state. It paved the mixed road to recent glory and ongoing expectation to stick around the summit.
Bourque is still at a point where his playing days constitute nearly 60 percent of his relationship with the Bruins. His 21st season in black and gold only halted when the employer granted his trade request on March 6, 2000.
Yet the mutual adoration between New England puckheads and the franchise record-setting blueliner and exemplary leader has hardly diminished. That was true when Bourque sought and attained his long-awaited Cup in Colorado and remains such in his retirement.
Bourque’s legacy and what the Boston franchise has accomplished since his last game accentuate hockey’s status as the quintessential team game. They likewise underscore how unfair that fact can be to individual competitors who deserve better.
That was why Bruins buffs took the former captain’s 2001 triumph the same way they took Boston’s next legitimate championship 10 years later. There was a general understanding that perennial failure to build a bigwig team brought about the franchise’s failings throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
While sporting a Spoked-B, Bourque made 1,518 regular-season appearances, eclipsing Johnny Bucyk’s record of 1,436 games. His durability rewarded his two-way proficiency en route to an unmatched 1,111 assists and 1,506 points.
In his day job on defense, Bourque remained a worthy minute-muncher long after garnering his last of five Norris Trophies. As late as the 1997-98 regular season, when he turned 37, he averaged 30 minutes and one second of ice time per night.
His nightly medians in the last four playoff runs of his career—two with Boston, two with Colorado—were 34:39, 32:04, 29:38, 28:31, respectively.
One could argue that the embarrassment of failing to fulfill Bourque’s quest ultimately impelled Jeremy Jacobs to wake up. Jacobs, who is now going on 40 years as the Bruins owner, still does not have the most pristine persona (read: NHL lockouts). But he attained a measure of vindication when the current front office and roster core delivered a title.
It is also worth noting the Bourque-like elements in the two most untouchable holdovers from that 2011 team. While Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron do not have the same star power, their positional makeup and intangibles lend them a similar appeal.
Chara, who turned 37 in March, is raising questions of long-term stamina in the wake of the last two playoff letdowns. He will need more support and rest to salvage his effectiveness for the balance of his tenure.
That notwithstanding, the Bruins issued a not-so-subtle mission statement when they acquired the towering blueliner and bestowed the captaincy upon him in 2006. Then-newly hired general manager Peter Chiarelli implicitly wanted Chara as a renaissance cornerstone.
In that regard, it was no different than the way the Bruins built their retooling endeavor for the 1980s around Bourque. Or the way they did the same in the late 1960s with another elite defenseman in Orr.
Bergeron has been the other indispensable ingredient in Boston’s modern chumps-to-champs escalation and subsequent drive for more glory. If that was not evident earlier in the revival, it should be now that he has completed 10 seasons with the team.
The most evident discrepancy between Bergeron and Bourque lies in their position. But Bergeron, a two-way center, is coming off two Selke Trophies in three years, long cementing his exemplary responsibility.
Bergeron, like Bourque, is a mild-mannered yet competitive Quebecois. He plays as tough as his role on the team demands yet maintains a commendable degree of discipline.
That is how he rose to a full-time alternate captaincy concomitant with Chara’s arrival. It is how he has earned his unmatched tenure among active Bruins, which will continue through at least 2021-22 and maybe beyond.
And naturally, it is how he has earned the endearment of fans that can only come with that kind of longevity and consistency.
With 659 appearances thus far, Bergeron has an outside chance of chasing Bourque’s career games record. That is assuming he stays healthy and signs another extension down the road while the NHL avoids future labor stoppages.
If those elements coalesce, he could make a run by continuing to play at least 80 of the 82 games for the next decade-plus. But even on that pace, he would need to wait until roughly February or March of 2025 to reach 1,519.
In other words, it will take no less than a quarter-century for any Bruin to surpass Bourque in career appearances. That reaffirms the shelf life of his lasting influence on the franchise and what constitutes a prototypical player in its uniform.
If all goes according to plan for Neely, Chiarelli and company, they will foster more of those to create sturdy bridges between generations. The most readily evident example is Dougie Hamilton, a rising third-year professional and Chara’s understudy.
As recorded on the Internet Hockey Database, Hamilton is Boston’s 11th top-10 pick and sixth among defensemen since 1979. None of those picks between 1980 and 2010 stayed with their original employer for a full decade.
But the Bruins have new management and new standards in this decade. Remember that they claimed Hamilton’s rights at ninth overall a mere nine days after corralling the Cup in 2011.
A little better than seeking a future franchise face in the wake of a mortifying semifinal letdown, is it not?
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com.
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